While love is in the air as Valentine’s Day approaches it may be just the time to figure out the boundaries for your children and their dating lives. Boundaries that are more of an ongoing discussion and based on each individual child. Expert (family therapist) Amy Cavanaugh weighs in on the tough subject of dating readiness, sexting and how powerfully your behavior speaks to what your children think about dating. Stay tuned to IND Family between now and Valentine's Day for IND Family's look at all things love, dating for grownups and V-Day crafts for your kids.
IND: What are some healthy boundaries to set for dating?
AMY: “I think the main healthy boundary to set for dating is that the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is not going to be the only thing, or even the most important thing in the teen's life. He/she should continue to keep their grades up, participate in sports and activities, maintain other friendships, engage with the family and stay in family routines, etc. Too often the dating relationship becomes all-consuming (unhealthy by itself), and then if/when it ends, the teen is left feeling devastated and isolated. Another boundary I think is important is that if they are going to "date," then they need to go on actual "dates;" too often I see teenagers who are just "hanging out" with little supervision, which leads to problems. They are also, though, missing out on learning social skills and respect for themselves and others by not planning and enjoying more real dates with each other.”
IND: At what age do you start having the discussions about dating and physical intimacy?
AMY: “I don't think it's ever too early to start teaching children about respect for themselves and respect for other people, including being protective of their bodies. Even preschoolers need to understand physical boundaries — doing so will make them more careful and thoughtful about sharing themselves later. It's even more important for parents to model healthy relationship behavior between each other — affection, kindness, communication, conflict resolution — all of which will influence their children's approach to romantic relationships later. The Woman's Foundation in Lafayette's Body Talk series is also an excellent program for children and their parents to gain information about puberty beginning at age 9 and continuing with more advanced topics up to age 18.”
IND: How do you know when your child is ready to date?
AMY: “I think each family has to define "dating" for itself. Some families may allow a middle-school child to see the "boyfriend" only at school and talk/text, but no time actually spent together outside of that. A junior high or early high school student might be allowed to go out with the person in a group, but not on individual dates. It can be a progression. Obviously, I think the longer a child waits to "date" is probably for the better in terms of social-emotional maturity, but even teenagers may not be "ready" to date. I think readiness has to include trust-worthiness; successful time-management of other activities; emotional stability; and a general history of responsible behavior (being where you said you were going to be, safe driving, not abusing substances, appropriate use of technology and social media, etc.)
IND: How do you teach appropriate behavior in light of the social norm that is promiscuous in many cases?
From early on, be clear with your children about your expectations for their behavior and model those expectations for them in your own behavior. Don't be afraid to set the bar high, and don't be tentative about enforcing consequences, positive or negative. If you don't want your child dressing a certain way or engaging in "sexting," don't do it yourself. Children are very observant, particularly of their parents, and they don't respect hypocrites. I think it's also important to have an ongoing discussion about values, and pointing out examples of what is and is not consistent with those values. As disturbing as Miley Cyrus' performance on the Video Music Awards was for parents (and hopefully younger children were sheltered from it), those events provide opportunities for parents and teens to talk about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and why people choose to behave in certain ways. For example, it's important to talk about how some people dress provocatively or act out sexually for emotional reasons, like insecurity, and that there are healthier ways to meet those emotional needs. Parents and children can't just have "the talk" one time — it has to be an ongoing process. This kind of open dialogue is especially important in today's culture of social media — kids need to understand that what they share of themselves on Facebook, Instagram, etc., is out there forever — and they need to have a foundation of respect, boundaries, and connectedness with their parents, to hopefully not put it out there in the first place.”